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Will Pope Francis reach out to women?

Newly elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina 's cape blows in the wind as he leaves the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome on Thursday. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)


First the good news: the new Pope Francis is an “austere Jesuit” who embraces the poor and rejects the pomp and formality of the church.

The (unsurprising) bad news?

He vigorously opposes a woman’s right to choose termination of pregnancy – along with gay marriage, free contraception and artificial insemination. But for someone who wants to bring more Catholics into the fold, that seems contradictory.

It’s also an unfortunate stance for someone who knows the poorest parts of Argentina first hand. Women in Latin America, especially the poor, have struggled for decades with reproductive health issues, and the region has the highest rate of unsafe abortions in the world per capita, at 31 per 1,000 women.

In Argentina, estimates say that a staggering 500,000 abortions a year are performed illegally, and nearly 80,000 women a year hospitalized due to post-procedure complications. Thirty per cent of maternal deaths are from bungled abortions.

That’s one reason why Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled to allow abortion in rape cases last year, in spite of the former Cardinal Bergoglio’s protestations. But the country’s maternal mortality rate is still around 77 per 100,000, compared with Canada’s eight per 100,000. In every country, in fact, the women with the lowest incomes are most likely to die from causes related to pregnancy. Thousands of them are Catholics.

“We call on Pope Francis to recognize that he is now head of a very diverse church,” said a statement from Jon O'Brien, president of Washington-based Catholics for Choice. “One that includes Catholics who use contraception, who have or provide abortions, who seek fertility treatments, who engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage or with people of the same sex, as well as people who are living with HIV and AIDS.

“These Catholics are absolute traditionalists in that they live according to their consciences and by virtue of their faith every day. A leader of our church who affirms rather than denies the lived wisdom of the faithful would be well within the Catholic tradition as well.”

Faced with a massive sexual abuse scandal and allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the Vatican, Pope Francis will have his hands full with demands for reform. Whether he makes a priority of managing women’s bodies remains to be seen.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and inernational awards and collaborated on two Emmy-winning films based on her work.


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